When it comes to sex, the more the better right? Popular perception would suggest that the answer to this question is yes. Media messages often tout the benefits of sex, going as far as to suggest that having sex every day in a relationship might be one route to greater happiness. In a recent set of studies my colleagues and I investigated whether more frequent sex was, in fact, associated with more happiness and found that it was, but only to a point.1
Across three studies of over 30,000 participants, we found that people who reported having more frequent sex in their relationship also reported being happier. But this association was no longer true at frequencies greater than once a week. To be clear, having sex more frequently than once a week was not associated with less happiness, it just wasn’t associated with more happiness on average.
People who engaged in sex more frequently with their romantic partner (up to a frequency of about once a week) reported being more satisfied with their relationship and this in turn, was associated with them feeling happier with their lives overall. In fact, the difference in well-being reported when having sex once a week compared to less than once a month was greater than the difference in well-being for people making $50-$75,000 compared $15-25,000 per year—an approximate $50,000 difference in annual income!
Interestingly, in one study we tested whether this pattern of results was consistent for people in relationships and for those who are single. The findings only held for people in relationships. For people in the study who reported being currently single, engaging in more frequent sex was not associated with more or less well-being.
Many media outlets have featured this research (see a few here, here, and here) and for the most part they have reported the findings accurately. However, there are a few things about this work that are important to keep in mind. The research is correlational, meaning that we have not attempted to increase couples’ sexual frequency; instead, we studied naturally occurring sexual frequency and its association with well-being. We cannot conclude that having more sex, up to about once a week, will lead (or cause) couples to be happier. There is likely an association going both ways—sex contributes to feelings of happiness, and people who are happier report more sex. The new finding in this work is that there is a point where engaging in more frequent sex is no longer associated with more happiness.
In a recent study by a different group of researchers, they asked couples to double their sexual frequency, but those who did this did not report greater well-being. The authors suggested that being asked to increase sexual frequency removed partners’ own motivations to engage in sex and made sex less enjoyable.2 The couples in this study, however, were already having sex about once a week (i.e., 5 times a month) at baseline, so it’s possible they had already maximized the benefits for well-being. Future work could test whether increasing sexual frequency benefits couples who are having sex less frequently than once a week.
There is still more work to be done to understand when and for whom sex leads to greater happiness. Although we were not able to look at the quality of the sexual experiences in the current study, the quality of couples’ sex lives likely contributes to the results. Engaging in bad sex more frequently is unlikely to be associated with more happiness, but overall people tend to report that their sexual experiences are more satisfying than unsatisfying.
Finally, our findings suggest that there is no longer an association between more frequent sex and more happiness at frequencies greater than once a week for the average person. It is clear from the responses to this research that people feel differently about the results. One person told me they found the results “”reassuring and liberating” whereas others have responded with “once a week?!” suggesting that they would prefer to have sex more often. Although our findings were consistent for both men and women, people of a broad range of ages and those in both longer and shorter relationships, it is possible that other factors such as a person’s ideal sexual frequency might influence the point at which more sex is no longer associated with more happiness.
To me, the take home message from this research is that it’s important to maintain a sexual connection with a romantic partner, but that for the average person that doesn’t necessarily mean engaging in sex as frequently as possible. Sex does not have limitless benefits for well-being such that more is always better. Instead, it seems that only too little is bad.
1Muise, A., Schimmack, U., & Impett, E. A. (2015). Sexual frequency predicts greater well-being, but more is not always better. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Advanced online publication.
2Loewenstein, G., Krishnamurti, T., Kopsic, J., & McDonald, D. (2015). Does increased sexual frequency enhance happiness? Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 116, 206–218.
Dr. Amy Muise – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Muise’s research focuses on sexuality, including the role of sexual motives in maintaining sexual desire in long-term relationships, and sexual well-being. She also studies the relational effects of new media, such as how technology influences dating scripts and the experience of jealousy.